Whenever I hear the old cliché that the only sure things in life are death and taxes, it makes me wish life could be that simple. Certainly, there are other unavoidable situations that cause many people fear and anxiety. One of these is writing.
Students will be expected to write applications to colleges, essays for scholarships, and assignments for courses. Educators will be faced with composing materials for classes, parents, and professional presentations. Professionally and personally, we are all faced with near daily use of email, social media, and other such writing tasks.
Ways to overcome writing anxiety can be discovered by examining five of the main places in the writing process that generate fear.
Most of us don’t mind writing tasks that we give ourselves. We tend not to worry about a status update on Facebook or an email we send to a friend. On the other hand, when we are given a writing task within a context like our jobs or a class, we have a different reaction. Often there is an initial feeling of shock about what we are expected to produce within a certain period of time. This may be a paper to write within four weeks for a course, a report to write for co-workers or a boss, or a presentation for colleagues. It’s not uncommon for that initial shock to cause our brains to freeze, a situation typically referred to as “writer’s block.”
There are some ways to overcome this, however. Adam Singer posted a rather definitive list of 15 techniques for overcoming writer’s block that may be condensed into the larger categories below (3 December, 2008):
• Take Action. Singer suggested writers who are stuck should move: exercise, move to a different location, unplug the technology, etc Doing so allows us to stop focusing on the task before us and lets our minds relax so that they can generate ideas and approaches for composing.
• Be Aggressive. He also pointed out that writers should focus on the toughest part of the composition first to avoid having their creative energies drained by routine activities, such as answering emails. Writers also shouldn’t be afraid to set aside parts of projects or entire writing tasks for later if there is no set deadline.
• Dive in. Similar to the above activities, Singer recommends writers, “stop thinking and start writing.” Although he provides an example of outlining, there is a wide variety of prewriting or “invention” activities writers can make use of to get their thoughts down on paper (see below). Also, I would add that jotting down some initial thoughts or your gut reaction to the writing task when it is assigned works well, too.
• Stay Engaged. Singer offered solutions, such as writing every day and carrying some means of recording your ideas whenever they come to you. This is good advice, and many professional writers keep what has sometimes been referred to as a “hell box” or file. Basically, this is a place to store ideas that occur to you as you move through your daily routine. Possible topics may come to you as you read, watch TV, observe people, or participate in class discussions or meetings at work. Record these, and you will have a ready resource of ideas when tasks are assigned.
I have personally experienced success in overcoming the initial shock of a writing task by using the above strategies, and I have seen these work well for others, too.
Mind to Hand
A second aspect of writing that tends to produce anxiety is the need to get abstract ideas out of our minds and onto the page. We’ve probably heard people say things like, “I’m a better speaker than writer. I wish I could just talk.” When we are faced with the need to incorporate secondary materials or the ideas of others (e.g., integrating sources into an academic paper), this becomes even more challenging. The phantom-like thoughts are difficult to capture and share with others.
The solution here is to apply some prewriting or invention strategies to get started. The Kansas University Writing Center provides a helpful description of some of these techniques. As a writer who has taught writing for over two decades, I would add the following:
• One or two of these strategies will work better for you than the others. For instance, I find listing and freewriting to be helpful for me when I need to get some ideas down on paper. However, personally, I rarely find clustering helpful. Take some time to experiment or even to create your own prewriting strategies.
• Certain strategies may work better in some situations than in others. Freewriting, for example, doesn’t work well for a group project (e.g., composing a slide presentation with other students or co-workers). On the other hand, writing ideas on sticky notes that the group can then rearrange on a wall has usually worked well for team projects I’ve been a part of in the past.
• All of the strategies basically involve letting go of your fears for a time. Do not worry about proper grammar, mechanics, the validity of an idea, or other such details. Allow yourself the freedom to materialize those abstract thoughts from your head onto your paper or computer screen first.
Overall, surrendering to the unknown creative process within us can be a bit scary, but it can also be exhilarating. You may come up with an idea or a focus for your writing that surprises you.
It’s also not uncommon to feel anxiety when writing in a new context. As students move from high school to college, for example, there are new expectations that must be met. Dartmouth College provides a concise explanation with tips on what is expected of students making this transition from secondary to postsecondary writing. This mostly involves becoming actively engaged in academia. Students must engage more fully in reviewing the research on a topic and sharing that information with others. Other scholars want to know that writers have done their research and that a composition will offer something new to move the subject forward.
Even as we progress from college into our careers, there will be new contexts for writing that may produce a sense of shock. By then we may be used to the conventions of academic writing, such as backing up our ideas with credible sources and documenting them; however, we may face contexts like a new job and office culture to adjust to.
The solution here is to make use of available resources like the writing center at your university (e.g., the Purdue Online Writing Lab ), colleagues or co-workers, a supervisor or mentor who is willing to provide guidance, and other available resources. Professional organizations may also provide help and model good writing within their respective fields by means of their own websites, journals, and other materials.
These first three tips for overcoming writing anxiety provide some helpful ways to deal with the information that needs to be discovered, interpreted, and expressed to others. Tomorrow’s post will get more personal, examining the human connection between writer and audience.
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